Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II Lens (Unbiased Review)

In Gear by Jim Harmer

What You Need to Know

I'm about to make a statement that I may later regret, but here it is.  The Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens is the best lens ever made. There are sharper primes and faster lenses, but the combination of convenience, versatility, and optical quality of this lens are unmatched.

This is the #1 most wished-for lens among readers of Improve Photography according to our survey, and I'm yet to meet a professional photographer who doesn't have a 70-200 in their bag.  If I only had one portrait or indoor sports lens to use for the rest of my life, it'd probably be a 70-200mm. It has a fast aperture for low light and nicely blurred backgrounds, and the focal range of 70 to 200 is quite versatile.

The only real negatives to this lens are the weight (better than the Canon but worse than the Nikon), the bokeh being slightly less creamy than other 70-200s, and also the shallower tripod foot being uncomfortable to keep on when hand holding.

Although the Canon 70-200mm is an incredible lens, most photographers should consider the Tamron 70-200 first.  The decision is a tough one, but for most photographers I recommend saving more than $1,000 and choosing the Tamron.  More on this later in the review.

Who Should Buy this lens: Discerning photographers who want the ultimate portrait/indoors sports lens, and who are willing to pay a lot of money for a lens when there is an alternative Tamron that is almost exactly the same thing.

Image Quality

Sharpness: Incredible.  It's sharper stopped down to f/4, but what lens isn't?  This lens is sharper than even the venerable Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II.

Vignetting:  There is an acceptable amount of vignetting shooting wide, but nothing horrible.  Frankly, I end up adding a vignette to most of my shots anyway, so who really cares about this?

Color: On par with other lenses of similar quality.  No negatives to mention.

Contrast: This lens is surprisingly contrasty, which is a really nice feature.  I think this is an element of lens reviews that is often skipped over, but which is very important.

Chromatic aberration: On par with other lenses of similar quality.  No negatives to mention.

Flare: I don't love the way sun flare looks on this, or really any other 70-200mm.  It has a tendency to throw an orange color cast over the entire photo and reduce the sharpness.  But again, this isn't unique to this version of the 70-200.

Close-up or Macro Capability

This lens has an improved close focus distance of 1.2 meters (3.9 feet).  Make no mistake, no 70-200mm is a macro lens by any means.  I frequently want to shoot detail shots while photographing a wedding and find that the 70-200 just can't quite hack it.

However, this version of the lens improves the close focus distance down to 1.2 meters.  However (yes, this is the third “however” in this section), DPReview (link below) and others report that this lens is quite soft when shot at the close focus distance.

Compatibility

Works on any Canon DSLR–full frame or crop sensor.

Bokeh

Many photographers have complained about the bokeh on this lens when compared to the original Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS.  Although both lenses use an 8 blade rounded aperture, this version of the lens has much harsher edges and details in the blurry portion of the photo.

Sometimes that can actually be a good thing, such as when there are trees with many leaves in the background.  On subjects like that, this lens can take a busy background and make it look intentional.  When you have a fairly neutral background such as a grassy field or clouds, however, the background isn't as smooth and soft.

Weight and Comfort

I have only–ever–heard one complaint from photographers who buy their first 70-200mm–and it's not an uncommon complaint.  It's the weight of the lens.  If you're used to shooting kit lens or shorter non-L lenses, you will likely be surprised by the weight of the 70-200mm.  Fortunately, however, the Canon 70-200 is 15% lighter than the Nikon version.

At 1490 grams (2.9 pounds), the lens weighs about the same as 3 little pints of chocolate milk that you drank in elementary school.  Speaking of those little chocolate milks, why did they design those little cartons to be so hard to open for little kids?  My carton top would always tear and then the first drink of chocolate milk tasted like paper.  It's this kind of thing that keeps me so puzzled that I just can't seem to get out of the house to take pictures.  Anyway…

One complaint I have with this lens is that the tripod foot is too shallow.  On the Nikon version of this lens, the tripod foot extends down a good amount so the photographer can grab a hold of it when shooting handheld.  On the Canon, it's too shallow so you can't fit your fingers under the tripod collar.  It seems petty until you've shot a dozen day-long events with a 70-200 with the tall collar and then switch to this one which is more uncomfortable.

Durability

Getting data about durability of lenses can be tough because few photographers own more than one copy of the lens, so all evidence is anecdotal; however, data from LensRentals.com which owns a large number of these lenses shows that this lens is less durable than you might think, given the solid build quality of the lens.

The three most common problems they saw with the lens are (1) Optics, (2) Image Stabilization, and (3) Loose barrel, and (4) Focus jamming.

Roger Cicala from LensRentals had this to say, “70-200 f/2.8 lenses are likely to fail no matter who makes them. We think of them as ‘built like tanks’ because they have that heavy, all-metal case. That case, though, is as packed with mechanics and electronics as anything you’ve ever seen. There’s a LOT of stuff in there that has to work perfectly. Inevitably, some of that stuff breaks.

Price

Check current price on Amazon

This lens is incredibly expensive. $2,500 (US) for a single lens is far more than most photographers are willing to spend, but for those who want the very best that money can buy, this is the lens to get.

The Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens saw a 33% price increase when it was announced, over the previous Mark I version of this lens which was also an excellent lens.

Availability of Reasonable Alternative Lenses

Compared to the Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8, this lens is about 5% better.  The photos are only barely sharper, and you can really only see that difference when zoomed in on the image with a magnifying glass or zooming in to 100%.  It's really not possible to argue that this lens is $1,000 better for the average photographer, but for professional photographers who can earn that difference in one shoot or for picky photographers who don't mind the price increase, then the Canon version is the right choice.

Input from Other Reviewers

  • Gavin Seim noted that this updated version of the lens produces slightly brighter and wider images than the V1 of this lens. That isn't necessarily better or worse, but it is interesting.  He also mentioned that this lens is slightly more contrasty, which is nice.
  • Bryan Carnathan noted that the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 is better than the Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 but only very slightly throughout the zoom range–until the long end.  At the 200mm end of the lens, the Canon easily bests the Tamron.
  • DPReview found that the lens is not as sharp at the close focus distance (1.2 meters, 3.9 feet), which negates the benefit of the closer close focus distance on this lens than the Mark I version.

What do all the acronyms mean in the lens name?

Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens is “marketing speak.” Let me break this down for you into “human speak.”

Canon – It's like a cannon, but without the giant metal ball and gunpowder–or the pirates.  On second thought, it's nothing like a Cannon.

70-200mm – Refers to the focal length of the lens.  You can zoom from 70 (fairly normal focal length) to 200mm (telephoto).

f/2.8 – This shows the maximum aperture of the lens.  (What's a constant maximum aperture?)

L – This is a marketing term that Canon uses to set its highest quality lenses apart, and to justify a higher price because they convince you that it's better.

IS – Image Stabilization is a technology that counteracts the tremble in your hands to produce a sharper photo at slower shutter speeds.

USM – Ultrasonic Motor means the lens focuses quickly, quietly, and accurately.

Technical Specs

Focal length: 70mm out to 200mm

Aperture: Constant f/2.8 (What's a constant aperture?)

Lens Mount: EF (Meaning it works on both crop sensor and full frame cameras)

Glass: 23 Elements in 19 Groups (Are more elements and groups better?)

Weight: 52.6 oz (1490 grams)

Vibration Reduction: Yes (four stops)

Focus Motor: Ultrasonic Motor (Faster and quieter than older motors)

Filter size: 77mm (standard for many professional lenses)

Diaphragm:  8 rounded blades (How many aperture blades is best?)


About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. He blogs about how to start an internet business on IncomeSchool.com..